A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (84)?…


Rack your brains

These days I find that I am talking about something, or more usually, someone and I find it increasingly difficult to recall their name. And then suddenly, often when we have moved on to another subject, it will come to me like a flash. Of, course what I have been doing is delving into the darker corners of what is left of my grey cells or to put it another way I have been racking my brains, applying strain on my brain to find the answer.

The rack was an instrument used in days of yore to torture individuals. It consisted of a rectangular, usually wooden frame, with a roller at one or both ends. The victim would be strapped on to the rack with their ankles toed to one roller and their wrists to the other. The handle at the top of the rack would be turned as the interrogation progressed, putting the victim’s limbs under increasing pressure. Unless they confessed, the process would continue until limbs were dislocated or worse.

You can imagine that the prospect of a visit to the rack would strike fear into the minds of the populace and that the term rack might become assimilated into the language to convey the sense of pain or anguish. Shakespeare in Twelfth Night (1602) used it as a verb in this context, “how have the hours rack’d and tortur’d me, since I have lost thee?” Half a century earlier, racking as a participle was used to convey the sense of increasing something or putting something under increasing pressure, “they may not racke and stretche oute the rentes of their houses”,

The composer William Byrd associated racking with one’s wits in 1583, “racke not thy wits to winne by wicked waies” and a century later William Beveridge in his Sermons, published in the 1680s, specifically used the phrase with which we are now familiar, “They rack their brains…they hazard their lives for it”.

We use the phrase rack and ruin to signify the complete destruction or collapse of something and it is tempting to think that the rack in this phrase also owes its origin to the mediaeval instrument of torture. But that is not the case. Its etymological root is the Middle English noun wrac which morphed into the verb with which we are more familiar, to wreck.

One Ephraim Udall used the phrase to wrecke in the context of something going to rack and ruin in 1548, as follows, “the flocke goeth to wrecke and utterly perisheth”. A phrase more analogous to our modern variant appeared in Henry Bull’s 1577 translation of Luther’s commentary onn the 15 psalms, “whiles all things seeme to fall to wracke and ruin”. Only a couple of decades later our phrase made an appearance in Thomas Fowler’s History of Corpus Christi college, “in the mean season the College shall goe to rack and ruin”.

Interestingly, whilst the presence of ruin in the phrase may seem tautologous in the context it is there to add emphasis.

So now we know!


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